For someone who seems perfectly comfortable stirring up a massive storm of controversy, Brad Paisley was awfully quiet Saturday night.
Not literally. The 40-year-old country crooner sprinted onto the stage at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow with a deafening vengeance, then kept an undercurrent of electric guitar running through a solid list of old and new hits. Noticeably not in the mix, however, was “Accidental Racist,” Paisley’s recent and extremely polarizing collaboration with LL Cool J about racial tension in America.
Its absence should not have been surprising: For all his willingness to push boundaries behind the safety net of a recording, Paisley will go there only if he can control the chaos.
When the Internet blew up in April with the release of the tune, reactions ranged from “cringeworthy” to “offensive” to “horrible”; others called it “brave.” No matter the widespread opinions, one would think that in concert Paisley would mention the song that just made him a household name for non-country-music fans. (And really, the topical, if distasteful, Paula Deen references would write themselves.)
But Paisley is especially shrewd about his image, which is how he’s stayed a chart-topper in Nashville for nearly 15 years, despite his penchant for infiltrating his music with taboo topics. He engages in no unscripted banter about these issues — even while introducing a song full of them, such as “This Is Country Music,” his 2011 album’s title track, which opens with, “You’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer’ in a song / And telling folks that Jesus is the answer can rub ’em wrong.”
“This has become my theme song,” Paisley said of the tune, simply. A giant American flag appeared on a video screen when he got to the lyrics about the military, and the crowd roared.
The nearly two-hour set was filled with uber-patriotic references, something Paisley probably figures is a better fit for a rollicking concert than social commentary — though he did let loose on a universal topic: making fun of memes and reality stars. During “Celebrity,” his ahead-of-its-time take on tabloid culture from 2003, the screens showed everything from the “Gangnam Style” dance to the goat that went viral on YouTube for yelling like a human.
So, Paisley played it safe and stuck to the basics, showing off his sweet guitar skills whenever possible, including playing the instrument with the help of a beer bottle. While going through his more recent catalogue (“Southern Comfort Zone,” “Old Alabama,” the currently-headed-toward-No. 1 “Beat This Summer”), he also paid homage to the Paisley of years past, with the goofy “Ticks,” “Online” and “I’m Still a Guy,” along with saccharine love songs “Then,” “She’s Everything” and “The World.”
Toward the end of the show, a disturbingly realistic hologram of country songstress Carrie Underwood accompanied Paisley on their duet of longing, “Remind Me.” Some audience members thought she was really there.
In a way, the stunt summed up a Paisley show: You get excited that something out of the ordinary is going to happen, but when it doesn’t, you’re not entirely surprised, but still feel a little cheated.